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The Challenge from the Left

The Right Need Not Lose

The Library at the University of Salamanca.

While it seems the Left is winning at the moment, the Right can respond prudently and intelligently in many ways...

There are several reasons, as I have pointed out elsewhere, why the Left has gained ground in recent years, not least among the young. Political issues that used to unite and even define the Right (in a wide sense, as non-socialists) have disappeared from the agenda: the clear and present danger from communism during the Cold War; and the choice between capitalism on the one hand and the public ownership of the means of production on the other hand. The West won the Cold War, and the Right saw its strongest arguments vanish into thin air. Some pervasive social trends have also been favourable to the Left. Ever more people are dependent on government for their livelihood, as public employees or recipients of government benefits and favours. For them, income is not to be earned, but collected. Moreover, the schools, from kindergarten to university, have been taken over by the new collectivists who think of people in terms of race, gender or class rather than as individuals. For them, academia should be a venue for grievance studies, not about the free competition of ideas.

The Fantasies of the Left

The Left rejects the political tradition originating in the West, but relevant everywhere, the tradition of private property, free trade, and limited government. What can those of us who support this tradition, the political Right, do about it? One perhaps counter-intuitive but not totally implausible answer is: Nothing. The tide will turn. People will come to their senses, things will sort themselves out. The young are usually motivated by hope and the older generations by fear, and therefore the young tend to like the long wish lists offered by the Left. They will soon discover that they are mostly fantasies. All young generations eventually do, as they grow older. There is no way, for example, that the now-notorious one per cent can finance all the material needs of the remaining ninety-nine per cent. Poverty has significantly declined in the world in the last fifty years, not least because of increased free trade (globalisation). The abominable institution of slavery was introduced earlier and lasted longer in the Arab world than in the West, and it was the West which took action to abolish it. Whereas colonialism can hardly be defended, it should not be forgotten that the last colonial empire was the Soviet Union, while China still treats Tibet like a colony; the inhabitants of Hong Kong desperately wanted to remain British subjects; and Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, all former colonies, are some of the world’s most successful countries on several criteria; again, those European countries which never had any colonies, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Iceland, have done much better than the former colonial empires.

Of course, we in the West should recognise the oppression and misery of many groups that we have hitherto tended to ignore or overlook. But at the same time we must maintain a sense of proportions. Despite all its faults, the West was never as cruel and merciless as oriental despots (including not only the Pharaohs and Genghis Khan, but also the Aztecs and the Incas) or the totalitarian rulers of the twentieth century, from Lenin to Mao. Moreover, it was capitalism that made it possible, through inventions such as the pill, home appliances and flexible working hours, for women to pursue independent careers, to mention one important example.

A New Cold War Has Started

On a different note, while the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West ended with the ignominious defeat of communism in 1989–1991, the Chinese Communist Party has, since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, started a new Cold War against the West, as Scottish historian Niall Ferguson and Israeli-American strategist Edward Luttwak observe. The communists are emboldened not only by their newly-found economic clout, but also by what they perceive to be the decline of the West. When Luttwak met the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying in 2009, at the height of the international financial crisis, she was almost shouting: ‘America is down! China is up!’ It remains to be seen what impact this new Cold War will have, but it surely will change our politics in the long run. The historic security partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, announced on 15 September 2021, sends a clear message to the Chinese communists (who should not be identified with their unlucky subjects) that the West is not about to surrender.

Stop Subsidising the Left

Nonetheless, the answer that the Right should just wait and see is unsatisfactory. The analysis of the Left’s ascendancy suggests several possible responses. First, whenever the Right has the political opportunity, it should try to reverse the trend towards increased material dependency on government. It is not only a sensible policy in itself to transfer as many decisions as possible from the public to the private sector. It is also crucial to the very survival of the Right that the number of public employees and recipients of government benefits and favours should fall rather than rise. The noble idea behind the welfare state was that nobody should be left behind so that he or she could not pay for education or health care or have to dread old age. There is however something incongruous in the fact that the welfare state has grown rapidly at the same time as living standards have vastly improved, and with them the ability of many more people to look after themselves. Welfare benefits should be targeted only at those who cannot look after themselves, and not be provided to those who are able but unwilling to work. The most effective defence of Western civilisation consists in its social base, a strong and vibrant civil society where the citizens resolve problems on their own initiative and where venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and innovators make countless experiments, at their own risk, and for their own benefit.   

Money also matters in academia and the media. We on the Right should of course respect the Left’s freedom of expression. But the taxpayers cannot be expected to finance the assault by woke activists on Western civilisation. As English political philosopher John Gray comments:

Rejecting old-fashioned liberal values as complicit in oppression and essentially fraudulent, they extend their power not by persuasion but by socially marginalising and economically ruining their critics. As in the show trials orchestrated by Lenin’s disciple Stalin and Mao’s “struggle sessions”, woke activists demand public confession and repentance from their victims. Like the communist elites, woke insurgents aim to enforce a single worldview by the pedagogic use of fear. The rejection of liberal freedoms concludes with the tyranny of the righteous mob.

In the United States, the rallying cry of the Left in the summer of 2020 was: ‘Defund the police.’ It would be more reasonable to defund those academics who have long ago abandoned any search for truth and are instead only engaged in political agitation. Their academic freedom should be respected, but they should derive their income from willing customers, not compel the taxpayers to provide it. If they can run academic programmes for which others are willing to pay, then so be it. The supporters of a free society can hardly object to privately-funded educational institutions. But they have a legitimate interest in publicly-funded institutions. The traditional argument for state universities certainly seems attractive: that there should be independent institutions, the groves of academe, open to able newcomers, where philosophers and scientists would, in the shade from the sun, undeterred by worldly pursuits, seek an understanding of problems and puzzles through the free competition of ideas. But unfortunately, as Gray observes, ‘Universities have become seminaries of woke religion.’

Make the Intellectual Case for Individual Freedom

The history of the twentieth century shows that small, well-organised and self-conscious groups of idealists can have a great impact.This was the case with the Ordo liberals in Germany, as well as the free-market advisers of Reagan and Thatcher. But there is more to life than politics. The Right must also be willing to engage in serious intellectual exchange with the Left, even if such willingness is not always reciprocated. There are still people who take arguments and evidence seriously. Such discussions can take place on many levels. Milton Friedman and other economists have demonstrated that most socialist proposals do not achieve their stated objectives. Many of their studies have been brought out by the highly effective international network of free-market research institutes which English businessman Sir Antony Fisher founded, on the advice of Friedrich von Hayek, the Atlas Network. Socialism does not deliver the goods, whereas capitalism does. At another level, creative thinkers, historians, economists and scientists, have brought attention to the many possibilities to flourish offered by a free economy. This is something which should in particular inspire young people, motivated by hope rather than fear, such as the Students for Liberty, with active associations all around the world. As Hayek once said, ‘We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.’ At a third and more philosophical level, the case for the free society is simply that individuality has become our identity, as English philosopher Michael Oakeshott eloquently affirmed. Over the centuries modern man has developed the will and ability to make choices, whereas the socialists deny this identity and desire the cold embrace of the collective.

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